A Professional Ethics Case Study…From Broadway

Before you read the post, can you guess who that actor is in the Afro?

Lately I’ve been helping a lot of lawyers seeking to create so-called Rule 5.4 law firms in the District of Columbia. In these firms, unique to the District, non-lawyers can be full partners. This means that they can share in the firm’s fees, which is something otherwise forbidden and a major ethics breach in the 50 states. Lawyers cannot, must not, dare not share their fees with non-lawyers…unless those non-lawyers are partners in the same firm.

There are certain requirements for that to happen, and the main one is that the non-lawyers must be supervised by a lawyer in the firm to ensure that the non-lawyers don’t engage in conduct that would be unethical for a lawyer.  The legal profession is justifiably wary that the unique priorities of the legal profession cannot be easily absorbed or understood by those who have been trained and influenced in a different culture.

It is right to be wary. Lawyers have enough trouble avoiding violations of their own rules; doctors, accountants and others, steeped in different alignments of values, can’t just shift gears like suddenly being in a law firm is like test driving a sports car. For so-called “non professionals,” a category that is increasingly contentious, it may be even harder to adjust, if not impossible.

Lawyers are often  overly optimistic about their non-lawyer partners’ ability to learn the importance of keeping all client confidences, not crossing over into the unauthorized practice of law, sensing possible conflicts of interest and illicitly soliciting clients, or engaging in misrepresentation and deceit, to name just a few. Lawyers tend to think that all professional ethics should be fungible. It’s a dangerous misconception, and there is a little cautionary tale from, of all places, Broadway, that illustrates it.

It has been mostly forgotten, but in 1969, a musical called“Buck White” opened at the George Abbott Theater. Its unlikely star: draft-resisting ex-heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

Yes, you read that correctly. Continue reading